Creating thought-tools for the times

A. Giridhar Rao

Arthur C. Clarke wanted the epitaph: “He never grew up; but he never stopped growing.”

With Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008) was one of the architects of English-language science fiction (SF). His was a prolific career: the “Partial bibliography” on the internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia lists 78 works, and his works have been translated into some 40 languages (I’ve just re-read the Esperanto translation of his excellent 1960 short story, Into the Comet). He ranged from technology to transcendentalism; from communication satellites and space elevators to post-humans and universal minds. What drove him, he said, was curiosity, and that characteristic impulse of the young of all species made him explore numerous fields. Apart from SF, he wrote on the communications revolution, fractal mathematics, the occult and the supernatural, futurology, the Great Barrier Reef, deep-sea exploration, and deep-space exploration. To these varied writings he brought an imagination simultaneously technologically rigorous and culturally and spiritually vast.

That cultural breadth he demonstrated, among other things, by making Sri Lanka his home ever since 1956. He created in Colombo what an interviewer called a “technoasis” — “a self-contained media centre, work station, observatory, and cerebral playground under a single roof.” From here he ventured out — virtually, through satellite video links to speak at meetings, and physically to scuba dive and to thrash all and sundry at table tennis!

The technological imagination was forever active: endorsing the moon shots of the 1960s; speculating on “teletourism”; building space elevators; erasing human-machine boundaries; giving computers direct access to the human brain, and thus achieving a kind of “data-immortality”; (intelligent) life elsewhere in the universe — about all these he wrote enthusiastically. Nor did he dwell only in these exotic, speculative universes.

Indeed, his 1945 paper on the feasibility of building a worldwide communications network with satellites in geostationary orbit proved to be an eminently sound idea. (In fact, the orbit itself is also called the Clarke orbit!). On the resulting technology of worldwide television, he wrote an enthusiastic essay in Frontline in 2001. In Satellites and saris: 25 years later he says, “One of the most magical moments in Satyajit Ray’s exquisite Pather Panchali is when the little boy Apu hears for the first time the Aeolian music of the telegraph wires on the windy plain. Soon, those wires will have gone forever; but a new generation of Apus will be watching, wide-eyed, when the science of a later age draws down pictures from the sky — and open up for all the children of India a window on the world.”

Nor was he merely starry-eyed about technology: “Watching everything from Hindi movies and cricket matches to world news and Discovery programmes, is India on the verge of having the largest concentration of couch potatoes in the world?” But the dangers of the social impacts of these “signals from the sky” did not blind him to its opposite: “Because some of us frequently suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it difficult to imagine its even deadlier opposite: information starvation.”

And, indeed, it is this idea and ideal of human emancipation that informs his finest writing. From the technological feasibility of colonising the solar system, to the conviction that humanity’s destiny lies in the stars, Clarke ranged from the practicable to the utopian. If his acknowledged master in the technological was Jules Verne, in the utopian, it was the philosopher Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s novel Last and First Men (1930), describing the human race’s evolution into more complex beings, anticipates what is now called “transhumanism,” and influenced many writers including Brian Aldiss, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis and William Auld. Clarke’s transcendental masterpiece in that tradition, Childhood’s End, appeared in 1953.

The novel’s themes include a human utopia; a poignant, last human generation which sees its children become utterly alien; and humanity’s transformation and integration into an interstellar “hive mind”:

“In a soundless concussion of light, Earth’s core gave up its hoarded energies. For a little while the gravitational waves crossed and re-crossed the Solar System, disturbing ever so slightly the orbits of the planets. Then the Sun’s remaining children pursued their ancient paths once more, as corks floating on a placid lake ride out the tiny ripples set in motion by a falling stone.

“There was nothing left of the Earth: They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.”

An even earlier story of lunar exploration, “The Sentinel” (1948) led to the famous collaboration with Stanley Kubrick and that 1968 mystical masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Honours followed: he had already won the Unesco-Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science in 1961; there was a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1994; a knighthood in 2000; and Sri Lanka’s highest honour “Sri Lankabhimanya” in 2005. The SF community too showered honours on him. Besides the orbit, he also has an asteroid and a dinosaur named after him! And he has lent his name to an award for space exploration, and to the Arthur C. Clarke award for SF — an award which Amitav Ghosh won in 1997 for The Calcutta Chromosome (meeting Clarke in 2001, Ghosh too was beaten by Clarke at table tennis!).

Seeing his infinite curiosity and a sense of wonder about the world, and his immense optimism about the emancipatory possibilities of science and technology, one begins to understand why Arthur C. Clarke wanted the following epitaph for himself: “He never grew up; but he never stopped growing.”

(A. Giridhar Rao writes about science fiction in English and Esperanto. Email: >agiridhar.rao@gmail.com)

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